Fun in the Fourteenth Century

Executed Today (a most entertaining and grizzly blog) has a fascinating post on the execution of Guillame Cale, leader of the Jaquerie.

I’ve had a poke at this sort of thing on here before: the fourteenth century wasn’t a secure time for anyone, and can’t have been a good time to be a peasant, but the goings-on going on were also inducing considerable angst for the knightly classes. Executed Today tells how the Jaquerie terrorised the local aristocracy (quoting someone contemporary named Froissart):

Thus they gathered together without any other counsel, and without any armour saving with staves and knives, and so went to the house of a knight dwelling thereby, and brake up his house and slew the knight and the lady and all his children great and small and brent his house. … And so they did to divers other castles and good houses; and they multiplied so that they were a six thousand, and ever as they went forward they increased, for such like as they were fell ever to them, so that every gentleman fled from them and took their wives and children with them, and fled ten or twenty leagues off to be in surety, and left their house void and their goods therein.

Because this post has no actual point, I’m going to use it to make a random fantasy literature recommendation, which is loosely related because it contains the slaughtered knight and his family just mentioned.

Sara Douglass’ ‘The Crucible’ Trilogy, set in a very-nearly-real-world version of 14th century Europe is, as far as I’m concerned, the best modern example of the fact that it takes a medievalist to write good fantasy fiction. (Old examples: Tolkien, Lewis. Another modern (also Australian!) example is the children’s author Catharine Jinks, who studied under JP, and her interests- Crusades, the office of notary, among other things- strongly reflect his.)

Douglass messes around with facts of time and chronological order, so if you’re a stickler for that sort of thing, don’t go there. The Crucible is, as well as an intricate story with a labyrinthine plot, a fascinating rendering of the medieval mind. Her main character, an embittered and warped monk, has internalised all that is ugly about medieval religion, and twisted it around his own unpleasant character. It took me a whole two months to get through the first two books, because she kept successfully convincing me that I was inherently evil by virtue of my gender. Her depiction of the demonic world is terrifying- she knows her Aquinas, that one, and this book is an unpleasant glimpse into what it might feel like to really, truly believe in the demonic world of the middle ages.

On the other hand, she takes the unsettling changes of the fourteenth century, which she depicts as the turning point between the ‘modern’ and the ancient worlds, and draws them in similarly captivating form. Are the uprisings across Europe, the Black Death, the political upheavals, the outbreaks of heresy, all part of a demonic assault on the established order (as no doubt they seemed to some), or are they part of something new, something better, something freer? It would be a criminal generalisation in academic work, but it makes for a brilliant story.

Douglass could’ve written an academic paper about any aspect of fourteenth century social change- and maybe she did, in her past life as an academic. Instead, she drew all this together, made leaps and associations you can’t make in historical study, and rendered it real and captivating in a way that no academic paper ever is. Don’t read it if you’re a stickler for chronological order. But do read it if the fantasy canon ticks you off with its faux-medieval setting and the fact that every fantasy novel out there seems to be set in exactly the same post-Tolkien world.

Oh, and don’t read these books if you get offended at Phillip Pullman. Really, don’t. (Having said that, I liked her depiction of Jesus. But l found Phillip Pullman spiritually inspiring rather than the reverse…)


2 Responses to “Fun in the Fourteenth Century”

  1. » 1358: Guillaume Cale, leader of the Jacquerie Says:

    […] Nice tangential follow-up from The Naked Philologist into a fantasy literature recommendation. Also see more about those jittery […]

  2. More Fourteenth-Century Hijinks « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] Fourteenth-Century Hijinks June 22, 2008 — highlyeccentric Along with uprisings and social anxiety, guess what else was going on in the fourteenth […]

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